NHL 2012-13: Carolina, Tampa Bay Will Be the Teams to Beat in the Southeast

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NHL 2012-13: Carolina, Tampa Bay Will Be the Teams to Beat in the Southeast
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Barring any ice-shattering moves elsewhere within the next two months, the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning will both be primed to skate up a storm in the Southeast Division next NHL season.

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

With Thursday’s advent of free-agent forward Alexander Semin, formerly of the once four-time division champion Washington Capitals, the Hurricanes have taken another head-turning step to snap their string of irrelevance.

Tampa, meanwhile, has revamped its roster without fail and ought to have no room for excuses if it does not rapidly return to the playoffs after its plummet from the 2011 Eastern Conference finals to 10th place in 2012.

Depending on certain X-factors, particularly in net, the Bolts may even snap their peerless eight-year divisional title drought that dates back to the team’s Stanley Cup title in 2004.

Carolina is likewise vying for first place for the first time since its own Cup victory in 2006.

The likelihood of that will depend partially on whether former Conn Smythe winning stopper, Cam Ward, can play to his potential for the full length of the coming campaign. The other key will be consistent offensive support from the new strike force and a slight cutback on shots-against on the home front.

Granted, Semin brings his own questions of whether or not he can stay confident and committed enough to reach the 30- or 40-goal plateau he is capable of. In terms of a supporting cast, there will no excuses where he is going so long as Eric Staal, the newly acquired Jordan Staal and the rising Jeff Skinner are co-piloting.

Translation: Semin’s presence should not hurt the Hurricanes, who frankly have had little to lose since their last playoff appearance in 2009.

The likes of Tim Gleason, arguably the most or only reliable defenseman on the Canes in 2011-12, will need help in his department of getting the puck out of his end and into the hands of his strike force. Some of that aid could come in the form of an old friend as Carolina joins Tampa in each welcoming a recent Boston discard.

Seasoned blueliner Joe Corvo’s confidence clearly and quickly went amiss as he tried to lend some point-based productivity to the Bruins. He would tally a mere four goals spread over three individual games and connected on only 2.4 percent of his 168 shots on net.

Naturally, though, he has seen better years with the likes of the Hurricanes, typically hitting double digits in the goal column and hovering around the 40-point range when he manages to play the bulk of the season. A return to his historically auspicious digs in Carolina could be a booster for both parties.

Meanwhile, Benoit Pouliot, Boston’s other major offseason import after the team’s 2011 championship, was dealt to the Lightning after a relatively inconsistent campaign that nonetheless saw him tally 16 goals and 16 helpers.

If he successfully strives to build on those career-high numbers, he will lend some much-yearned-for depth to the smaller pond in Tampa. Don’t rule out the No. 4 overall draft pick from 2005 being a late-blooming top-sixer and thereby complementing Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Teddy Purcell and Ryan Malone.

Backing Pouliot and his new offensive colleagues will be fellow imports Matt Carle and Sami Salo, obtained via free agency from Philadelphia and Vancouver, respectively.

The Lightning’s goaltending remains a question mark. But Anders Lindback, upon coming in through a trade with Nashville, will have a chance to show how much he secretly sculpted while competing for crease time with Pekka Rinne.

In addition, Dustin Tokarski should have a chance to start transitioning to the next level after backstopping the Norfolk Admirals to an AHL regular-season and playoff title.

The way the Lightning have addressed their sorest needs is all but the 180-degree opposite of what their intrastate rivals have done so far this summer.

Florida has added practically nothing to its shallow, limited strike force. Despite the signing of Peter Mueller, the Panthers have also lost forwards Mikkael Samuelsson and Wotjek Wolski and defenseman Jason Garrison, who was coming off a breakout 16-goal, 33-point campaign.

Granted, Samuelsson and Wolski are both tagged with uncertainty due to off and on injuries and have each reached 30 goals in a single season only once. But for Florida, every little bit of offense they lose hurts.

By failing to sign Semin when they had a chance, let alone seeing him go to another divisional rival, the Panthers lose again by not gaining

Wolski goes to none other than the Capitals, who also traded for Mike Ribiero last month.

With those acquisitions, they will now be banking on a rebound year by Alex Ovechkin and a whole crop of scorers building around him through the guidance of new head coach Adam Oates.

Those personnel moves both on and behind the bench could ultimately prove beneficial for Washington, but it is hard to envision the Caps keeping up with Carolina and Tampa in the immediate future. That is assuming all of the returning and added pieces work according to plan for their respective franchises.

As for the Winnipeg Jets, they can duplicate the valiance from their first campaign of long-distance Southeast Division membership, but will likewise face the same complications from excess travel.

It won’t help their cause to have more vastly competitive versions of Carolina and Tampa Bay to deal with six times apiece.

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